A Short Piece Featured in Frequently Asked Questions by Ruika Lin.

Do we use questions to increase wonder or to wound?

Photo by Emily Morter

The questions we ask say a lot about who we are — questions suggest identity. If I were a bug, I wouldn’t ask the same questions I do as a person. I might wonder, “Why is grass so tall?” “Do bugs have souls?” “Why do humans squash us?” but probably not much about the Green Bay Packers or Nolan’s most recent masterpiece. If I were a star, I might wonder why I didn’t have arms for hugs; if I were a bird, I might wish I could cook. Even when I genuinely want to know, I cannot help but want to know in a way that is suitable for me.

Audio Summary

“Why is the sky so blue?” — this question seems simple enough, but the meaning of the word “sky” might depend on who is asking the question. To a bug, often under grass, the question might be, “Why is the sky often green?” To ask a bug “Why is the sky blue?” would be to speak nonsense.

“What is the sky?” might be a better inquiry, and to the bug, the answer could be “Mostly grass,” while to a human the sky would always be “layers of the atmosphere.” Contradictory answers to the same question can be right across different speakers. Answers that contradict can still be seamless.

A bug can’t build satellites to answer the question, “What is the sky?” but humans are responsible for more. If humans asked, “Why is the sky often green?” as if they were bugs, humans would be responsible for not making the most of their potential. In this sense, bad questions are possible, and yet if someone asked, “Why is the sky green?” and was referring to the science fiction world they were writing into existence, their question would be valid. Hence, we can’t assume a question is invalid just by hearing it: only askers can know if their questions shrink the mind or expand it. We must trust one another and should assume that a question, even if it sounds foolish, is an expression of growth.

I

It matters how a question is asked. If I ask, “What is the meaning of life?” my friend might shrug, but if I ask, “What is the meaning of your life?” my friend might talk for hours. Are questions like snowflakes and no two questions the same?

The tone of a question transforms how the question is received: a sarcastic question said out-loud can seem like a serious question when read off a page. How a person utters a question says something about what the person thinks about that question, and a question asked cynically will not be answered the same way as the same question asked kindly. Similarly, a written question may not have the same impact as a spoken one.

The form of a question influences how it is answered. A multiple-choice question could be easier to answer than the same question without multiple options. Someone who answers the former version of the question correctly could seem smarter or more confident than the one who answers the latter version of the question incorrectly or hesitantly, when in fact both people could be equally as intelligent and confident. Furthermore, when a question is asked could transform how it’s answered. A question asked in the early morning to someone who is tired may not be answered in the same way as the same question asked at night to the same person.

Asking a question is no simple matter.

II

Questions can be used to expand human potential and to stifle it, and unfortunately it’s easier to ask about things going wrong than about things going right. If I’m going to drive to the store to buy a shirt, there are a million bad outcomes that can occur, while there is basically only one successful course. If I sip on coffee, there are lots of things that can go wrong — I could burn my tongue, drop the mug, etc. — and a single way things could go right. The odds stacked against us, it’s easier to ask questions from a place of worry than from a place of wonder.

We live in an age when frequently asked questions frequently cause despair. Many questions are asked today not from a desire to learn but to make sure that things go as we want. It is always possible that something goes wrong, and so it will always seem rational to worry and seek control. When society accepts that premise, questioning will become a cause and perpetuator of anxiety.

We often ask questions when we are emotional rather than when we are inspired. We tend to ask questions to make sure everything is alright when the very act of asking such questions can mess everything up. When we are worried that someone is upset, we can inquire to make sure the person is okay, causing that person to worry. Even knowing this, we think, “What if the person will get upset if I don’t ask him if he is okay?” and end up asking, “Are you alright?” This can make the person feel as if he or she was doing something that suggested there was a problem, which can generate guilty and/or anger.

A question asked from fear for the sake of assuring peace can cause the very anxiousness it hopes to quell.

III

Questions shouldn’t be asked out of fear yet shouldn’t be avoided out of fear either. When we are asked questions that force us to question what we believed in, it can be easy to shrug and say halfheartedly, “I don’t know.” This can sound humble, when in fact the statement can be used to avoid the question (it can be an indirect way of saying “be quiet”). We can also say “I don’t know” when asked “Do you want to go the store?” to pass off the decision to someone else. We might know exactly what we want to do, but not wanting to take responsibility for causing a course of action (since it may entail doing things that others don’t want to do), we can defer responsibility. Humility can be a tool.

Questions can be weapons. When a person makes a mistake, we can ask, “Why did you do that?” and throw salt on the wound. If a person forgets to get bread at the supermarket, we can ask “Why did you forget?” “Didn’t you write it down?” To such questions, we probably know the answer: there is no reason; it was a mistake; they forgot. But by forcing that individual to feel foolish, we can force that person to feel the disappointment we feel, and that’s what we want: to not suffer alone and, in our minds, unfairly.

When someone has no reason for why they did or didn’t do something and we use a question to force that person to come up with an answer, we put that person in an inescapable place of anxiety. They are “pinned down,” unable to appease us as they search for a reason that isn’t there, an anxiety caused by a seemingly innocent question that we seem justified to ask (after all, we asked them to pick up bread, and they forgot). But this not how questions should be used — questions should be “awe-full” not awful.

IV

Questions can be empty and insincere, used to instigate ritualistic exchanges where the questions matter only insomuch as they enable socialization. “How are you?” “How’s work?” — though possibly sincere, they often just fill the silence, and if we tried to answer them fully, we’d risk frustrating the asker. This isn’t to assume the asker meant to ask empty questions, only that the asker assumed we understood the nature of the social ritual. It is possible that many “truth-seekers” have been hurt when they tried to fully answer inquirers who weren’t interested in full answers.

Questions can be used to undermine the act of asking questions. “What are questions but ships destined for shipwreck?” is the sort of inquiry that attempts to justify, even moralize, a non-inquisitive lifestyle. “Who are you to ask that sort of thing?” can be used to chastise. “Who are you?” can be used not as a sincere attempt to understand someone, but to make a person feel bad for speaking up. Motives matter, and if we attempt to answer insincere questions, the more correctly we answer them, the more irritated the asker might become.

Questions can be used to avoid truth instead of discover it. Any truth can be shrugged off with the right (or wrong) question. “Isn’t truth relative?” “Can you really know yourself?” “What is truth?” Not every question should be asked, let alone frequently, but the questions that increase wonder should be dwelled in daily.

V

Asking good questions is hard; learning to ask good questions, even harder. This skill doesn’t come naturally, for what comes naturally is asking questions that deconstruct, and determining what constitutes a good question takes asking good questions. Instead of “good versus bad questions,” we could instead think in terms of “constructive versus deconstructive questions,” and train ourselves to be constructive. Deconstructive questions will hurt loved ones and guide us into fear, falsity, and alienation. Good questions will guide us toward awe, truth, and life.

Questions are powerful, necessary, and deadly. Since the types of questions a person asks are bound up with the identity of that individual (as the answer to the question “What is the sky?” is bound up in humanness or “bug-ness” of the asker), questions reflect a particular individual’s need to know, a particular need which we all universally share. The questions that I ask will not be the same as the questions you ask, though we may use the same words. This isn’t to say questions can’t be shared, only that questions are profoundly individual, for the answers to questions must be understood particularly within the context of the asker to be fully grasped. Questions, even when they are the same, are still particular.

When people share constructive motivations, rather than use questions against one another, they achieve freedom and an openness to learn and grow — hearts and minds unify in loving-questions. Given the communal connect, when these people ask, “How are you?” they understand how the question is to be interpreted and answered. If they’re artists, their questions will likely entail projects; if homemakers, their questions could focus on their families. Loving-questions are asked and answered in a manner that likely reflects true identity, making both the inquirer and answerer feel free. Such questions, asked in love and considering particularities, also incubate love.

Questions should be asked in love, not fear. If so, we would ask good questions while learning how to ask even better ones. Then, the more frequently we asked questions, the more frequently we’d live with love.

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